“Writing well is a matter of figuring out what obsesses you,” my professor in grad school William Kittredge told me. Out of all the topics you could write about, which ones should you choose. To find your subject matter, write toward your obsessions.
“What obsesses you?” he said. “Head toward your life’s work.”
Throughout our semester he kept repeating this maxim to our class. “Work as close to your obsessions as you possibly can,” he said.
He shared this wisdom with his other classes, because Kate Schimel remembered (in her Jan. 18, 2021 essay on Kittredge and storytelling in High Country News) him saying this:
Find your obsessions and follow them.
When John McPhee talks about how he chooses his subjects, he says that a huge percentage are those he was interested in as a young person. The best passions start when we are young and remain with us throughout our lives.
Find Your Subject Matter in Your Passions
Because obsessions are important, I encourage writers in my workshops to brainstorm what they are passionate about. I set a timer for five minutes and ask them, in their journals, to make a list.
I invite them to answer the question: What obsesses me?
To think that a writer needs a reference list of obsessions is absurd. However, a laborious brainstorm drives home this point: If a subject consumes you, inflames you, turns you into a geek, then, my sweetheart, your writing on the subject will reflect that white-hot fire.
When I was first learning to write, I wrote what an editor wanted. I wrote about organizing closets and stocking ponds and hunting ghosts. At a certain point, long before I could afford to do so, I quit taking on such jobs. I wrote about things that obsessed me. I usually wrote without an assignment (which was financially risky and even financially dumb), hoping to find a publisher afterward. Thus many pieces I wrote did not publish.
However, I can say this: When I enter my writing room, a little flame that eternally burns rises up and starts to really hiss. For an artist that’s priceless.
Any writing toward your obsessions will automatically be better than any written toward an editor’s obsessions.
So be passionate. Find your subject matter deep within your own heart.
An Exercise for You to Find Your Subject Matter
Start a page in your journal and begin to list your obsessions. Be as abstract as you like (democracy or spoken word) or as real and particular as you like (your lover’s lips or tupelo honey). Keep listing.
I invite you to post one of yours in the comments section. I’ll start us off.
One of My Obsessions & a Subject That I Love to Write About